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As Summer Heats Up, Palmetto Little Leaguers are Left in the Cold


PALMETTO -- The timing could not have been worse for a major infrastructural undertaking when the School Board of Manatee County sought to find a replacement for Palmetto Elementary School. The city's mayor was running for county commission. There was a hotly contested race for his replacement. A school district superintendent was retiring and intent on bringing an important project to fruition.

Of course, in a perfect world none of these things would matter and I'm sure all parties involved would say that politics didn't have any bearing on the ultimate decisions, and maybe they didn't. But I think it is fair to acknowledge that such things can sometimes, at the very least, complicate a pressing matter.

True, there was also a very real and pressing reason for the school; the fifty-year-old facility the district was using had serious mold and air quality issues. Parents, students and teachers were pressuring the school principal and the board for a solution and the school district was pressuring the city to assist in it. It turns out there was no easy fix. Palmetto is heavily developed and the requirements for such a project are no small matter.

The city hoped for another school on the existing campus. The school board said that they were prohibited from adding schools without adequate increases in enrollment, of which there had not been. The city then hoped the new school would be built where the old one would be torn down, with students being temporarily diverted in the interim, as has been the case in some other instances, but were told the land was not big enough for the new school.

It was decided that the only feasible solution was a complicated land swap between the city, the district, and Manatee Fruit. The new school would be built where Palmetto's Little League and Boy's Club sat, Manatee Fruit would give the city over six acres in land in exchange for future concessions, the fields would be relocated and all would benefit from what then Mayor Larry Bustle called a "zero-sum deal."

However, anyone familiar with land development knows that "simple sounding" and "simple to do" are two very different things. The school was built, but the original land swap was not enough acreage. Manatee Fruit ponied up some more land, but there were still issues. The fields will end up costing much more than alloted and require moving a road, at an additional cost of right around $1 million.

The city is moving forward with the project, but says their ability to fund it hinges on two grants coming through. They've asked the school board to help, and while the school board has professed a willingness to share costs, it has also again pointed to its limitations on how it can spend money. There are competing positions over everything from who should pay the closing costs on the land swap deals to whether or not dirt fill should be reimbursed at the just over $20,000 the dirt would cost at fill, or the $180,000 it would have cost, had it been purchased and transferred, rather than made available by the city (ie. what one could have sold it for, or what the other would have paid for it).

In the end, it seems clear that a very complicated and expensive project was hastily green-lit before an accurate cost estimate was attained and all details and responsibilities were addressed, and that should be the lesson learned. The school board has gotten their new school, the Boys Club has opened a new facility, and Manatee Fruit is finally getting their legal fees paid. However, the North River American Little League is dying a slow death, because they do not have adequate fields and there is no word when, or even how, new fields will be contructed.

"We're in the dark on this," said North River Little League President Chuck Hague. "We just want people to tell us what's going on. I'm tired of having to read about it in the paper. We pay the county $120 per player and then $50 per team. We charge the kids less than that ($65) because we have sponsors, thank god, but we still have 53 kids on scholarship. This keeps these kids off the street and gives them something positive to be a part of."

Current Palmetto Mayor, Shirley Bryant, says that she is confident the field will be built, but feels bad about how the Little Leaguers have been treated.

"They should have a field", said Bryant. "I feel like everyone has forgotten about the ball players. If we can get the two grants we're counting on, then we can move the road and get it built at the specifications required, but without the grant money, this is going to cost more than the land sale proceeds that are committed to rebuilding the fields and we've got to figure out where that money is going to come from."  

To make matters more complicated, the fact that the city lacks the resources to manage the new field brings the county government into the process. It does seem preposterous that a "solution" requiring $1 million to slightly relocate a city street was even considered as an option, when the entire budget was just $1.5 million and the complex has already grown from 6.5 acres to 14.6 and there are some, such as Hague, who believe an adequate complex could have been built without moving the street and for much less than projected.  

For the school board's part, current Manatee Superintendent Tim McGonagal says the fields will be built and that he is working with the county and city to find funding, but all of this is of little comfort to Hague. "This is hurting our organization now," said Hague. "I'd just like someone to be honest with us and tell us what's going on. I feel like we're no further than we were two years ago."


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